Wednesday, 4 March 2020

People Complain So Much Because There's So Little To Complain About


No, I really mean it - I'm not being flippant or sensationalist - it seems fairly obvious to me that this Blog title "People complain so much because there's so little to complain about" taps into a profound truth that the more advances we make, the more we complain about what we think needs fixing.
 
In one sense, this has to true, by definition, because more advancement means more things to assess, and more things that can go wrong or that can be improved upon even further. But for a fairly large sub-section of society, it's seems that it's not just the case that the better we do collectively in terms of standard of living and advancement of material progress the more things people find to complain about - it's also the case that the better we do, the more trivial those complaints become (clearly there are going to be exceptions, but it seems largely true).
 
People living in any period of about 99.95% of our 200,000 year human history would have primarily focused on mere survival and acquiring the basic necessities for daily sustenance; they wouldn’t have had time to worry about how many black people are represented on Oscar night, or whether Remembrance Sunday offends Muslims, or whether a student thinks trans women are real women. Compared to most people who’ve ever lived, a person of today needs to have a relatively comfortable life to have the luxury of complaining about most of the things that people frequently complain about.
 
I’m not saying our first world problems don’t provide difficulties, and nor am I denying that there is genuine hardship right across the globe. But people badly need to get a sense of perspective, otherwise every period of greater prosperity will just yield more and more frustration, and make us even more myopic towards the countless ways the world is getting better.
 
There’s also a danger that we could become resistant to the collective encouragement that should emerge from acknowledging what a good job we’ve done to make so much progress. I think idealists forget that we are apes; so much more than mere apes, of course, but apes nonetheless – and only relatively recently sophisticated within the timeframe of our long Savannah-dwelling history. Given the foregoing, I’d say we are actually doing remarkably well, especially in such a short time-span, and it’s only our monumental achievements that give us the cushion to enjoy such high expectations about what else we can accomplish as a species.
 
Sadly, complaining without a proper sense of perspective makes people less happy and more stressed, which is especially disconcerting, given that what causes the complaining is the very thing that demonstrates that there isn't all that much to complain about - increased wealth and prosperity. Life has to be pretty good in order to arrive at the luxury of being able to complain so much about so many relatively non-serious things.
 
There's an old joke proffered around at Christmas time:
 
Q) What do you buy for someone who has everything?
A) Penicillin
 
The joke, like all jokes of that kind, taps into a truth - the rich and prosperous are harder to buy for than the poor, because materially speaking the rich already have more of what they want. Suppose a dying billionaire asks you to put his money to the best use - you'd probably use it to give to as many poor and needy people as possible, and you'd have no difficultly in knowing what to buy them; a place to live, heating, clothes, and most basic of all, food and drink.
 
If you had to carry on spending on their behalf, you could improve their lives even further still with nice household furniture, a good hi-fi, TV, car, garage, conservatory extension and some holidays. But then what? Suppose you still had hundreds of millions more you had to spend on them - you'd find it harder than when you only had to decide on the basic necessities and small luxury goods. To know how to spend hundreds of millions on someone, you'd have to really work hard to learn what they'd most value - a football club, hundreds of cars, the world's biggest mansion, rare works of art, or a small island? Who knows? The point is, beyond a certain threshold, it's tough to keep spending on luxuries. If I had billions to spend on myself and wasn't allowed to give any away, I don't think it'd be easy compared with being able to use it to help others.
 
The picture I painted more or less describes what it's like in Britain on a smaller scale - the first few thousand pounds of our earnings are the most important - that's what pays our bills, keeps us fed and clothed, taxes and insures our car, and so forth. After that, our individuality comes out more - as we each spend our leisure money on different things.
 
And what I've just described applies to government spending and our public services too. Most people concur on the basics; they want a good health service that makes people better; a good education that informs pupils; a good social services system that protects vulnerable people, a good police force that keeps crime rates down, and so on. But on top of all that money pumped in, people differ on what they want that money spent on. If you had to choose between extra Home Office money going on putting more people in prison or better rehabilitation for those already in prison, opinions would diverge. The same would be true if you had to choose between extra money going into the arts or extra money going to improve our military equipment or our ecosystem – you’d never get everyone to agree.
 
The upshot is, it might be good to bear all the above in mind when you hear people complaining (or feel like complaining yourself) about things that aren't attached to the basic necessities – being offended on Twitter, trains being too slow; the minimum wage being too low, the country being too unequal, having to pay for your own social care out of your own savings, plastic in the oceans, the earth being a few degrees warmer, poor Broadband coverage, whether an airport should have another runway, the price of energy, and so on - those complaints are usually a sign that, with everything considered on the grand scale of human history, things are going pretty well. Rest assured; If I’d have lived in the Victorian era, I wouldn’t have had the luxury or time to write these complaints about human complaints.
 
* Photo courtesy of jasonyounglive.com

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